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Iraq says vast areas taken from Kurds in Kirkuk, Kurds deny gains

Iraq says vast areas taken from Kurds in Kirkuk, Kurds deny gains

Iraq says vast areas taken from Kurds in Kirkuk, Kurds deny gains

A convoy of armoured vehicles from Iraq's elite US -trained Counter-Terrorism Force seized the city's provincial government headquarters on Monday afternoon, less than a day after the operation began, a Reuters reporter in Kirkuk said.

It was not immediately clear whether or when the Iraqi government would seek to retake control of all Kirkuk oilfields, a vital source of revenue for the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

The city sits on the edge of an expansive oil field that can be tapped for about a half million barrels per day. However, it is believed that the Kurds are now a majority in both the province and the city.

Baghdad insisted the city and its province be returned, but matters came to a head when the Kurdish authorities expanded their referendum to include Kirkuk.

Baghdad described the advance as largely unopposed, and urged the Kurdish security forces known as Peshmerga to cooperate in keeping the peace. Early Monday Iraqi forces began moving to evict Kurds from a military base and oil fields. By late afternoon, they were in control of several oil and gas facilities, the airport, and a nearby military base.

"We have no orders to enter the city, just to secure the surroundings", a military commander involved in the operation said, adding that the Kurdish forces had pulled out in an orderly manner from the position taken by the Iraqi forces.

Local police stayed in place in Kirkuk as Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi called on civil servants to remain at their posts to serve the city.

It remains unclear how far Iraq's army and its militia partners intend to advance, but the importance of Kirkuk and the complexity of the armed alliances increase the "potential for political and military miscalculations", said Glen Ransom, Iraq analyst at Control Risks in Dubai.

But the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad said in a statement that it supports "the peaceful reassertion of federal authority, consistent with the Iraqi constitution, in all disputed areas".

State-run Al-Iraqiya TV had earlier reported that federal forces rolled into parts of the countryside outside Kirkuk without facing resistance.

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Thousands of revelers waving the Iraqi Turkmen and Iraqi national flags were celebrating the transfer of power in downtown Kirkuk by nightfall, but thousands more were fleeing the city with their belongings to the neighboring Kurdish region, fearful of national or militia rule. It is considered a terrorist group by Turkey as well as by the European Union and US.

Kurdish Peshmerga fighters ride in a vehicule in the Southwest of Kirkuk, Iraq October 13, 2017. Omar Sheikhmous, a veteran Kurdish leader, warned before the referendum that it might turn out to be one of the classic misjudgements in Iraqi history, comparing it to Saddam Hussein's decision to invade Iran in 1980 and Kuwait in 1990.

"The United States provided equipment and training to the government of Iraq to fight ISIS [Daesh]... not to attack elements of one of its own regional governments", McCain stated following reports of clashes between Iraqi forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga in northern Iraq.

It's the timing of the dispute that underscores how fragile Iraq is now.

After ousting the jihadists from their last urban areas including Mosul and Hawija in recent months, Iraqi forces are battling to push IS from its last positions along the border with Syria.

"Despite attempts by [pro-KRG] Peshmerga forces to stop them from leaving, many families are making their way towards provinces in the Kurdish region", al-Obeidi said.

Talks between the two sides are now likely to focus on easing sanctions against the Kurdish region, including those on the banking sector and against worldwide flights.

Residents of Kurdish-controlled areas, including Kirkuk, overwhelmingly backed secession from Iraq in a 25 September vote. However, the vote was never held.

"This is the result of disobedience of Masoud Barzani", said the Iraqi fighter who was filming, referring to the leader of Iraqi Kurdistan and the KDP. He hopes to cast himself as a visionary for the Kurds, they say, even if he can't deliver on the dream of independence.

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